August 2020 Impact Assessment
The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing, school gardens and food and agriculture education into schools and early care and education settings.
Impacts of COVID-19
- School shut downs due to COVID-19 virtually eliminated school markets as an option for local producers overnight. While schools adapted relatively rapidly to launch grab-and-go and delivery options for meals, the quantity of meals served was significantly smaller, reducing product need. In many cases, the products included in those meals needed to be shelf stable or pre-wrapped, precluding producers who couldn’t offer minimally processed or value added product. In the long term, there is valid concern that ongoing school shut downs and serving school meals in a way that adheres to necessary safety guidelines (e.g., serving in the classroom, individually wrapped everything) may undue the advances in child nutrition meal programs, including improved nutrition and meal quality, focus on scratch cooking, and child choice, and emphasis on local, value driven purchasing.
- On a positive note, the COVID-19 crisis has elevated the vital importance of school nutrition programs and established schools as a hub for food access for the whole community and a connector point for local food access. Thanks to USDA waivers, young children who wouldn’t normally be eligible for meals received meals and many school sites started serving food to all community members. Schools and early care sites also became valuable distribution points for food boxes and food donations (including Farm to Family Food Boxes).
- Financial impacts on both school nutrition programs and producers who had previously served school nutrition programs are (and will continue to be) severe (see question 6 for more).
Obstacles to Sector Response
- Even for schools still working to purchase local product, they have been challenged to find appropriate product (needs minimal prep, can survive a bus ride in a cooler, etc.) for the modified school nutrition program distribution. This is compounded by a lack of processors who are working at a local/regional level to process/package product from local/regionally serving producers. This infrastructure limitation has been further elevated during COVID-19.
- The financial repercussions of the crisis have decimated school food service budgets, severely limiting flexibility in spending on food, which will impact programs capacity to purchase local, higher-quality product. School nutrition programs may also have to reduce staffing to manage budget and any non-vital activities (including relationship development with local producers, etc.) will be put on hold as programs make drastic changes to meal service.
- Anecdotally, some producers have found that they can make better margins through direct sales, which may discourage them from going back to selling to schools or wholesale markets that offer a lower price point.
Successful Marketing Adaptations in Response to COVID-19
- Increased CSA/food box distribution – including those subsidies from federal or local projects, distributed through schools and early care sites.
- Changing feeding models to send home family bags of groceries (vs. individual meals) allowed greater opportunity to include local foods that families could prepare at home (vs. needed processing at school sites).
- Local/regional intermediaries were vital in supporting producers in pivoting rapidly by finding alternative outlets (using online matchmaking or leveraging existing partnerships), repacking wholesale products for regional/direct distribution, or providing minimal processing or preservation (e.g., freezing) to reduce immediate losses.
Economic Impact on Sector
- School Nutrition Programs: – Increased costs: new equipment for shifting service styles (e.g., coolers for delivery or outdoor holding), PPE, packaging (everything had to be individually wrapped), increased food costs (due to needs for prepared foods and impacts on supply chain disruption, staffing costs (continuing to pay staff even if they are not working), transportation for meal delivery – Decreased revenue – decreased participation in meal programs = decreased reimbursement from federal meal programs – Federal waivers to shift to Summer Food Service Program during school closures (and through the summer) offered higher rates of reimbursement and provided reimbursement for meals provided to any child under 18. When schools return to session (virtual or in-person), they will have to go back to National School Lunch Program protocols that do not include these flexibilities
- Producers serving school markets – Increased expenses in having to pivot – (packaging, delivery, marketing) for those continuing to serve schools (in a modified school nutrition format) and those having to identify different outlets – Revenue loss – loss of institution markets – Potential increased revenue – for small/med size producers who were able to pivot to CSA or direct sales (and leverage the virtual market place).
Impact on Sector Members
- Producers who are already connected to food system partners (local non-profits, state agencies, third party aggregators or facilitators) were better able to pivot and access new markets.
- Producers whose first language is anything other than English had more barriers to accessing potential relief benefits and accessing programs or models that would help them shift markets.
- Communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the health and economic impacts of COVID. In these communities, emergency school food distribution programs were even more important and were stretched to capacity.
Desired Data and Technical Assistance
- Better understanding how school nutrition programs are leveraging USDA waivers
- What where the key factors and characteristics that facilitated “pivoting” in community food systems – infrastructure characteristics, individual producer characteristics, relational/relationship characteristics
- How would a “Universal Meals” program impact school nutrition program capacity to purchase local foods? What would be the economic impact of a Universal Meals program with a local procurement set aside? How could this type of program support local food system recovery?
- TA/financial support to producers for value added processing (to prepare appropriate product for modified child nutrition program service styles).
- Third party support to navigate relationships between school buyers and producers.
- Support for school nutrition services to leverage USDA waivers to support/increase local purchasing (e.g., FFVP waivers, procurement waivers).
Contact Information for NFSN:
Lacy Stephens firstname.lastname@example.org